Get the DIRT on Teen Substance Abuse and Bad Choices


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John Morello spent most of his life watching close friends and family struggle with addiction. Some lost the battle. While never an addict himself, Morello's experiences fueled his desire to help high-risk teens avoid that path by touring the country sharing his drug-abuse awareness message. Instead of a typical lecture, however, Morello departs from the usual "Just Say 'No'" clichés and tells the gritty truth in his acclaimed theatrical show called "Dirt," which he will perform Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. in the Cary Academy Fine Arts Theater.

Morello's cast of four characters, all played by him, honestly portrays the struggles many young people face making choices about drugs and alcohol while addressing the core reasons for substance abuse: low self-esteem, depression, and the desire to find purpose in the often-chaotic lives of teens.

With 15 years of stage experience as an actor and comedian, Morello slips effortlessly in and out of the characters, forging an immensely compelling story. The characters speak candidly, and often comically, about their experiences, in a manner that audience members can relate to.

For the past seven years, "Dirt" has toured the country with Morello believing he can make a difference in the lives of troubled, confused young people with every performance. Each time he takes the stage, Morello is reaching for "a kid who just needs to know, despite the confusion and strange things life presents, that he is more than just dirt," he says.

Morello chose the name "Dirt" for several reasons, but most importantly because he noticed himself using the word or the image as just about every character. Dirt also just happens to be a street name for heroin. In addition, Morello discovered when researching the show that his father, a World War II veteran, pocketed a handful of dirt before an attack as a good luck charm.

"Dirt" also has a somewhat spiritual meaning for Morello. The prophet Ezekiel's message in Chapter 37 of the Old Testament is about the valley of dry bones. Morello recounts: "The image of a man facing a barren wasteland and wondering if it can live again was very powerful to me as I confronted my own 'teenage wasteland' and wondered if I could 'live again' and possibly make a difference ... this image of life coming out of the dry dirt."

Even though he never became addicted, Morello can easily identify with the feelings of adolescent uncertainty and isolation that drive others to drug abuse. His family's relocation from the Midwest to the East Coast when he was 13 contributed to his own experience of alienation and confusion. He eventually began skipping school, which resulted in failing grades and a stint as a high school dropout.

After returning to high school, Morello met a Latin teacher who changed his life. Unlike previous teachers who viewed his comedic tendencies merely as the antics of a class clown, this teacher acknowledged his talent by making a deal with him. He offered to let Morello perform his comedy act for a brief period every day with the condition that Morello would give the teacher his rapt attention for the remainder of the class. For the first time in his life, Morello became engaged in his education.

Although the primary audience for his show is middle school teens, Morello performs for all ages and highly recommends parents being involved as much as possible. He offers two important points for parents to consider.

First, he says, "Parents need to be firm and hold their kids accountable for their actions. Kids don't need for their parents to act like friends — most kids have plenty of friends. What kids need is for their parents to enforce consequences when they break rules or get caught for bad behavior."

Second, "as parents, you should be willing to give yourself a good hard look, examine your own feelings and inadequacies," he says. "Before you criticize kids for trying drugs, think twice about your own nightly cocktails and sleep aids. Before you criticize kids for succumbing to peer pressure, remember your own fancy material trappings."

Morello's Feb. 16, 2010 performance is recommended for parents and students in grades 7 to 12. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for children and are available online at www.carolinaparent.com/events. The show is sponsored by Carolina Parent, Cary Academy and Durham Academy.

Robin Hutchison is the marketing director for Carolina Parent.

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